Legal experts talk next steps after Marion County newspaper seizure

Local and national organizations are now trying to determine whether law enforcement violated the newspaper's First Amendment rights.
Published: Aug. 12, 2023 at 8:06 PM CDT
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MARION, Kan. (KWCH) - Friday, the Marion County Record said the Marion Police Department and the Marion County Sheriff’s Office seized it’s computers, cellphones and reporting materials.

Owner of the newspaper Eric Meyer said law enforcement also came to his home and took other property.

Why did this happen?

12 News is working to sort through all of the details associated with this incident. Right now, Meyer said he believes law enforcement was motivated by a confidential source leaking documents about a local woman to the newspaper. He said the woman complained to city council members that the newspaper illegally obtained sensitive information.

Law enforcement then obtained a search warrant, signed by Marion County District Court Magistrate Judge Laura Viar. It alleged identity theft of the woman and unlawful use of a computer.

Meyer said he believes law enforcement in Marion are attempting to suppress the newspaper’s reporting.

“We’ve heard nationwide from people regarding this story. Almost nothing from local people. I got called from one local person who said ‘I saw this thing on Facebook, you ought to see it.’ And I said ‘Can you send it to me?’ And they said ‘I’m not sure, they might come seize my computer.’ That’s the kind of chilling effect that come come out of this,” said Meyer.

Emily Bradbury, Executive Director of the Kansas Press Association said journalists are meant to hold people accountable for communities.

“Journalists are the watchdogs right of government and we like to think we hold government accountable and not just for ourselves but for our communities,” said Bradbury.

Media lawyer and President of the Kansas Coalition for Open Government Max Kautsch said journalists are protected by federal law against unreasonable searches and seizures. It usually would take a subpoena from law enforcement to obtain documents from journalists. Kautsch said Marion Record reporters requested the original affidavit with the search warrant, but was denied.

“The affidavit on which the search warrant was based has not been disclosed. There is a Kansas law that has been in effect since 2014 that presumes disclosure of such affidavits once those warrants are executed,“ said Kautsch.

Bradbury said moving forward, the fight is not over for the local newspaper.

“There is a group of people standing beside the Marion County Record, they’re not going to be alone in this. This isn’t over. We’re going to try to hold those responsible for this action accountable and make sure people know this is something that won’t be tolerated.”

Meyer said his 98-year-old mother and co-owner of the paper died Saturday, just one day after the business and Meyer’s home was raided. Meyer said his mother lived with him.

12 News asked to interview with the Marion County Sheriff’s Office and the Marion County Police Department but did not receive a response back.

Marion Police Chief Gideon Cody posted to the department’s Facebook page Saturday in response to the reports:

“The Marion Kansas Police Department has has several inquiries regarding an ongoing investigation. As much as I would like to give everyone details on a criminal investigation I cannot. I believe when the rest of the story is available to the public, the judicial system that is being questioned will be vindicated. I appreciate all the assistance from all the State and Local investigators along with the entire judicial process thus far. Speaking in generalities, the federal Privacy Protection Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000aa-2000aa-12, does protect journalists from most searches of newsrooms by federal and state law enforcement officials. It is true that in most cases, it requires police to use subpoenas, rather than search warrants, to search the premises of journalists unless they themselves are suspects in the offense that is the subject of the search. The Act requires criminal investigators to get a subpoena instead of a search warrant when seeking “work product materials” and “documentary materials” from the press, except in circumstances, including: (1) when there is reason to believe the journalist is taking part in the underlying wrongdoing. The Marion Kansas Police Department believes it is the fundamental duty of the police is to ensure the safety, security, and well-being of all members of the public. This commitment must remain steadfast and unbiased, unaffected by political or media influences, in order to uphold the principles of justice, equal protection, and the rule of law for everyone in the community. The victim asks that we do all the law allows to ensure justice is served. The Marion Kansas Police Department will nothing less.”